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Notes from Allen Verhey (Remembering Jesus) on Economic Justice

[This post continues a series of notes on various authors on wealth and poverty in Christian ethics.  Allen Verhey argues for a use of Scripture that 'remembers' the canonical writings and early Church when addressing ethical issues in contemporary contexts.  Allen Verhey, Remembering Jesus: Christian Community, Scripture, and the Moral Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002).]

Verhey notes that the political and economic situation change in the history covered by the Old Testament, with the result that one finds different descriptions of justice.  This might be expressed in the following table (based on his description, pp. 258-262):

Socio-Political Character
Biblical Source for Description of Justice and ‘Remembering’
Examples of Economic Justice
Abraham the wandering Aramean; Israel in slavery in Egypt; Israel wandering in the wilderness

Nobody owned the land and flocks were owned by the extended family, so there were no rich or poor
Israel settling in Canaan
The Covenant Code of Exodus 20.22-23.33
Attempt to desacralise agriculture (no fertility gods); reduction of some to slavery and women to chattel (e.g., Ex. 21.1-11, 20f); protection of stranger (22.21; 23.9) freeing of slaves (21.2), caring for widows and orphans (22.22-24), rest, food and a hearing for the poor (23.6-8, 10-11, 12); protection for debtors (22.25-27)—based on Israel’s story and God’s character.
Urban and Monarchical
Royal Court, standing army

Taxation and conscription (1 Sam. 8.11-17); increased division between the wealthy and poor, who mortgaged their lands and then became landless tenants or slaves; king viewed as defender of the poor (Ps. 72) but often lived above the law (e.g., Ahab confiscating Naboth’s vineyard, 1 Kgs. 21).
Rise of Prophets to call for justice according to the covenant; King Hezekiah’s and Josiah’s reforms
Prophetic literature; Deuteronomic Code (assuming urban culture: single sanctuary, Dt. 12.5, 11; 14.23f; 16.2, 6, 11; 26.2—contrast Ex. 20.24; conduct of kings, Dt. 17.14-20)
1. Prophets denounced wealth amidst poverty (Is. 3.16-26; Amos 4.1-3), dishonest and avaricious merchants (Amos 8.4-6), selfish, heartless creditors (Amos 5.11), covetous landowners (Is. 5.8; Mic. 2.1-4), venal judges (Is. 1.23; 3.13-15; Amos 5.7, 10, 12).
2. Development of Covenant Code: furnish slaves liberally upon their release in Jubilee (Dt. 15.12); not only release of slaves but also of debts (Dt. 15.1-11); judicial reforms (Dt. 16.20; 24.17), consumer protection (25.13-16—standardised weights and measures); pay of day labourer at the end of the day (Dt. 24.14f); regulation of legal practises (Dt. 23.19-20; 24.6, 10-13, 17); laws about gleaning (Dt. 23.24-25; 24.19-22) and gathering and distributing food to the poor and dispossessed through a 2nd tithe every 3rd year (Dt. 14.28f; 26.12-15).

Verhey then turns to 'remember' the teaching on wealth, poverty, and economic justice in the New Testament.


Eschatological Wisdom:
1.     Do not be anxious (Mt. 6.26, 28-30; Lk. 12.24, 27-28)
2.     Give (Lk. 6.35; 11.41; 12.32; 18.22)
3.     You always have the poor with you (Mt. 26.11; Mk. 14.7; Jn. 12.8)—reminding that Dt. 15.5’s vision is not yet a reality—the poor will never cease out of the land (Dt. 15.11).  This calls for an ongoing concern for the poor in the community.
Early Church
Community of Goods in Jerusalem
1.     Practised as a memory of Jesus’ teaching on care for the poor (in Luke): shepherds visit Jesus in animal stall 2.8-20), parents offered sacrifice of the poor (2.22), John the Baptist calls for people to share in Lk. (3.10ff), Jesus preaches good news to the poor (4.16-21; 6.20ff), including in unique parables to Lk. (Good Samaritan, 10.25-37; Rich Fool, 12.13-21; Great Banquet, 14.15-24; Rich Man and Lazarus, 16.19-31), Zacchaeus’ example (19.1-9).
2.     Use of money is illustrative of human existence; in Lk. it is a 'sign and symbol of one's response to … the kingdom' (282).  Acts 4.34 ('not a needy person among them') refers to Dt. 15.4.  Lk. sees 'the community created by the Spirit as a community of friends in an economic world of patrons and clients' (283).
3.     This is more than illustrative (rather creative fidelity to early Church) but not legislative, not a social program (see Luke Timothy Johnson [previous post]).
1.     The Lord's Table--koinonia at the Table, no rich and poor distinction.
2.     'Self-sufficiency' (a Stoic virtue)--Phl. 4.11f; cf. 1 Tim. 6.6-10; 1 Th. 4.11-12; 2 Th. 3.7-12)--is understood with reference to Jesus ('humility', Phl. 4.12; community, 1 Th. 4.9; love, 2 Th. 3.12).  Cf. Acts 20.35: more blessed to give….  Contribute to the needs of the poor, show hospitality (Rom. 12.13; 16.23), generous giving (Rom. 12.4ff).
3.     The Collection (Gal. 2.9, 10; 1 Cor. 16.1-4; 2 Cor. 8-9).  'Equality' is the goal (2 Cor. 8.13f).  Aristotle (NE 1131b31, 1157b36, 1158b29, 1162a35: there are: equality of distributive justice, of rectification, of friendship.  Paul advocates the last of these (p. 295).
Identification with the poor (James 1.9-10).  Some Christians were wealthy, others poor (1.10; 4.10).  The 'rich' hoard wealth (5.2f; cf. Mt. 6.19f; Lk. 6.37; 12.33); oppress labourers (5.4; cf. Lev. 19.13); live self-indulgently in luxury and pleasure (5.5); are guilty of judicial murder of the righteous (=Jesus, p. 300) (5.6; cf. Acts 3.14; 7.52; 22.14).  But wisdom is full of mercy and good fruits, no partiality or hypocrisy (3.17), cares for orphans and wodows (1.27), meets the poor's bodily needs (2.15f), shows them hospitality (2.1-7), humbles oneself before the Lord (4.10), resists the rich way of life (5.1-6), and endures the trials of the rich's way of life (5.7-11) (300).
The earth's kings, great men, generals, rich and strong will be judged for not welcoming the Lamb (6.15).  Rome's fall involves such a judgement (ch. 18).
Pastoral Epistles
1.     Contentment (1 Tim. 6.6-10) is again affirmed, but still not in an ascetic sense: moderation leads to contentment.  It is not money but the love of money that needs renouncing (1 Tim. 6.13-16), and generosity is called for from the rich (6.17-18).
2.     'Caring for the poor is a communal responsibility'--widows in particular (5.3-16).  But families were first required to help before the church, and only certain widows were to receive help.
Cf. Heb. 13.2, 5, 16 (practice hospitality, be content, share)
Continuing Church
1.     The Church did not make the Jerusalem Church's practice a requirement, and they did not find a Biblical economic theory for all times.  Communities were engaged in discourse on economic ethics, deliberating and discerning what to do in given situations as they remembered Jesus and the early Church (p. 305).  Their 'memory and hope formed a tradition of generosity and justice' (p. 306).
2.     The tradition taught not to be anxious but trust in God's good future, to be generous, and 'was embodied…in a variety of institutional responses to the needs of the poor' (p. 307).  Justin Martyr: there was a common fund administered by the president to help the orphans, widows, poor, imprisoned, strangers, others (1st Apology, 67.5-6).  Tertullian: the fund also helped feed and bury the poor (Apology 39.5-7).  Cornelius: the fund in Rome helped over 1500 people in poverty (Eus., HE, 6.43).  Cyprian defended the Church by attacking the empire's greed and failure to help the needy ('Treatise V, An Address to Demetrianus').  Julian the Apostate: to overthrow Christianity, it would be necessary to copy them in hospitality to strangers, burying the poor, feeding the hungry, whether or not Christian ('Epistle 22: To Arsacius, High-Priest of Galatia').
Contemporary Church
1.     Working for a living: Eph. 4.23f, 28.  Honest work (not stealing, cheating, swindling, charging excessive interest, misusing power in how credit is extended or in how we hire and fire people, not abusing labourers (sweatshops, child labour).  Work to have something to share with the needy.
2.     Congregations need to deliberate, in memory of Jesus, about whether their life is a blessing on the poor (p. 315), especially when thinking of spending money on themselves.  The Lord's Table is a time to consider whether the Church is practising koinonia, sharing with the needy in its midst.  Generosity is a 'response to gift,' not the 'conceit of philanthropy' (316).  See Verhey's discussion of mission and development (pp. 316f).
3.     Adam Smith trained us to 'focus on the creation of wealth,' and this can be a way to help the poor.  Self-interest would create wealth, it would be regulated by unseen providence resolving conflicts of interest for the common good, it would be restrained by competition (over against the mercantilism of his day, which licensed the monopolies of the wealthy, even giving them state support) (p. 326).  But self-interest does not by itself help the poor, and our vision needs to be corrected by remembering Jesus' good news to the poor (p. 323).  Creation of wealth is only one goal; others include 'blessing the poor, sustaining the quality of human life, and sustaining the finite resources for the economic project'  (p. 323f). [The church's missionary task/s should be added to any short list]